In the year of the chaos known as 2020, my husband and I added a bit of extra chaos to our lives by selling our beloved house and moving into a condominium after a few months spent renovating it. Given that the word condominium is long and sounds so unlike a home, and given that its abbreviation sounds silly and unlike a dignified place to live, I began referring to our new home as the chateau. They say every man’s home is his castle, after all.
Along with moving from a house to a chateau within the same city, we were also in the process of moving to another house across the ocean–in a town with an actual castle. It wasn’t a sudden or unexpected thing, moving back to my husband’s hometown in Croatia. But it was and is still a big thing. A huge thing.
Little did I know that a very tiny thing would show up in the midst of this huge thing, paradoxically bringing light with its dark form and bringing order into the chaos. Here’s how it happened.
In the course of all this geographical moving, I began sensing major movements internally–not surprisingly. For right around 20 years, I had been seeing clients for counseling and spiritual direction. Now I was going to no longer have an office and essentially close down shop except for a small amount of somewhat sporadic, sometimes digital, sometimes in-person work.
It’s not just the loss of a tangible space that was home for my main life’s work; it has been the not knowing what’s next. Who will I be without that role? What am I meant to do next? What am I now here for? Or what will I be there for, across the sea?
And aren’t these questions we all face at times: What did you make me for, God? Why exactly am I here? You made me able to do several things and to love doing many things; how do I know what you want me to do? How am I supposed to know what You are calling me to?
And other questions have moved around inside me: What right do I have to do the work of a counselor, anyway? It is so personal, so precarious at times. I’m not a lone ranger, but who or what gives me the right to do such crucial work as counseling? Let alone spiritual direction.
These questions have been there before over the years, sometimes with hope and joy, sometimes with doubt and discouragement, sometimes with simple uncertainty and wondering. It can be a daunting vocation, and I have had times of testing.
The questions had settled down, though, somewhere into those 20 years. I loved my work with people. I felt at peace with the thought of continuing this kind of work, believing that this was the answer to why I’m here and what I’m meant to do. So the decision to move upended all that, and the internal questions swirled again.
Back in the chateau and the swirl of actual, physical moving, eventually the day came to move furniture. One of my most beloved pieces of furniture is a writing desk that belonged to my grandmother. It stayed in her living room. It is the sort with two glass doors on top with detailed, decorative wooden reinforcement, a few drawers below, and a fold-down desk in the center, with many little compartments and drawers hidden when the desk is folded up. It’s wonderful. I love to think of her sitting there to write letters, respond to invitations, put stamps on mail.
On this particular day, my husband and a friend had brought the piece up and begun to unwrap it, set the drawers in, and make sure everything opened and closed smoothly. I was in the area when my husband called out, “Hey, is this yours? I’ve never seen it before.”
I went over to see what he was talking about. It was a tiny black book, about the size of a small index card. On the front were a gold cross and the IHS symbol. I had never seen it before, either. He said it had apparently been lodged somewhere in the framework and had worked its way out.
I opened it up. Catholic’s Pocket Manual, Compiled from Approved Sources. Published in New York in 1922. The back inside cover noted beneath a simple, lovely black and white symbol of the Trinity, that it was “printed in Czecho-Slovakia.”
We had moved this piece of furniture two decades earlier, from my grandmother’s house to our first house. We had moved it again ten years later, from the first house to the second. I had gone carefully through all the drawers, doors, and “secret compartments” the first time. But now, in this third move, in this chaotic year of 2020, for some reason, this little book had dislodged from its hiding place and appeared to our wondering eyes.
It felt like a hidden treasure that had given up on ever being found and had just decided to put itself out in the open so that it could finally be appreciated and used.
So I decided to appreciate it and to see how I might use this little mysterious gift. I had no idea what to expect after the publication material. Not being Catholic, and not having had any kind of pocket manual, whether Catholic or Protestant, I really wasn’t sure what it was.
It turned out to be a prayer book. The Table of Contents, in its tiny typeface, lists among other things, a Table of Feasts and Fasts, instructions for Lay Baptism, fourteen prayers under the heading Morning Prayer, and five under Evening Prayer. It has prayers for the mass, and it gives the entire text of the Latin Mass with English translation in an adjacent column. I won’t go on–this index card-size treasure, not a half-inch thick, has 224 pages of prayer!
Given the timing of its publication and that it includes a Litany for the Faithful Departed as well as instructions for a lay person to assist a priest at mass, I couldn’t help wondering if it were printed because of the political situation and the number of people who had recently returned from war. A way to help people be better prepared for potential future war? But then I have not yet been able to find any history of such manuals, to know when they began being made, so I don’t know.
Whatever the origins of the genre, I love that a book so tiny was made to help people pray, something they could truly carry around in a pocket. Perhaps the pocket over their heart.
I don’t carry it around in my pocket, however. It has survived all these years, and I don’t want to risk harming it or losing it. And who knows what life it lived before it found its way into my non-Catholic grandmother’s writing desk? It’s obviously been used and is worn on the edges. Its unknown origins give me a sense of respect for it. I want to respect the person who first used it, whose presence I sense in the frayed ends of the tiny ribbon bookmark, in the more-worn sections of the book compared to the pages that tend to stick together.
This tiny book came to me as a mystery and remains a mystery.
And it has helped me with some of the mystery of my own life.
When I turned to the very first page of actual prayers, I read:
Awaking in the morning, say:
O my God, my only good, the Author of my being and my last end; I give Thee my heart. Praise, honour, and glory be to Thee for ever and ever. Amen.
I knew immediately that I wanted to memorize that prayer and awake to it each morning.
It was simple, eloquent, passionate, and it spoke truth.
And that truth was exactly what I needed. Who am I and what am I here for kind of calms down and gains new perspective as I focus on God as Author of my being and my last end.
What am I supposed to do with myself? calms down as I pray I give Thee my heart.
I am not the author of my own being. I don’t have to figure out a whole new meaning for my life as the circumstances swirl. I don’t have to know what’s next. I do have to remain focused on God and His centrality in my life. If He is my very beginning, my Author, and my “last end,” my telos, as long as I remain faithful to Him, I can trust what happens in the middle.
Part of what happened is that our plans got a surprise when my husband’s employers offered to have him keep his job but work remotely part of the year, meaning we would divide our time between the two countries. I decided that when we made the actual first transatlantic move, after cutting ties with my own work, I would not accept any new work or ministry offers for a year, but would let it be a year of studying the language, settling the Croatian house, getting used to the new rhythms, and praying and listening. Praying for guidance and listening for nudges, invitations, encouragements, about what comes next.
I’ve been praying that little prayer for many mornings now. I’ve added reading Psalm 139 daily–or as close to daily as I can remember to do; I have found the continual change challenging for establishing routines.
I’d be lying if I let the reader believe this has cured all my doubts and answered all my questions. I’ve had moments of painfully grieving the earlier routine of my life, and fear about what comes next. I’ve had times of feeling almost completely lost, unable to communicate as a whole person in one country, mostly feeling only partially heard or known, wondering if I’ll ever feel truly at home there. And wondering in what way I still belong in the country my passport says I belong to.
But then that prayer is there, refocusing me on the Author and trusting Him as my “last end,” Who knows to what ends He wants to use me.
So I’ve been paying attention and listening. And without making any once-and-for-all commitments in this first year, at least for now clarity has come through conversations with others who know me well, through prayer, through paying attention to what I am doing and to what doors have been opening.
I’m continuing with the few clients I have and have decided to open the door for a few more. In English. Work in Croatia will surely happen eventually, but for now the digital semi-revolution that the pandemic provided has made it much more possible to walk this path even across the ocean.
I’ve decided to trust that God would not have started me on that path for no reason. The story He began writing is still a good story.
Much of this decision-making has come because of that word “Author.” God “wrote” the book that is me, even before the book of my life is finished being written. He made me who I am, He gave me the life I’ve lived up until now, and one day it suddenly just made sense to continue walking the path I’ve been walking. The swirling circumstances don’t negate it, even if they adjust it significantly.
Much of it has also come because of the prayer that immediately follows that first, where the manual gives further morning instruction.
Rising up, say:
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen. I will raise myself up from this bed of sleep to adore my God and to labour for the salvation of my soul. O, may I rise on the last day to life everlasting!
I can have a tendency to get lost in my head. Especially in this time of so much change, so much unknown, it has been easy to wake up and lie awake flooded with thoughts, uncertainties, anxieties. That prayer cuts through it all, focuses me on Who is in charge. It helps me get up, get going, and live in trust.
A few days ago, on an emotionally “flooded” morning, a spiritual mentor texted me these words from Psalm 31: “Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe, for you are my crag and my stronghold; for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.” (Psalm 31, The Book of Common Prayer Psalter, 1978)
Like the little black book, the text came unbidden, as a surprise and a gift. It felt as if the Author of my being were at work.
A castle. A chateau. A Name to lead and guide. I’m humbled by a tiny black book and its prayers, I’m awed by how God keeps writing my story. May I continue to give Him my heart.
Featured image is courtesy of Aaron Burden via Unsplash. We are grateful for his generosity.
Sheila Vamplin learned early to love God through words, music, and people. Her English degree, piano study, and choral singing somehow led her to Italy and then to Croatia. Landing back in the U.S. after three years of war, she earned a counseling degree. Now a licensed marriage and family therapist with a DMin in spiritual formation, she has concurrently taught piano students and has sung with the Memphis Chamber Choir and the Rhodes Mastersingers Chorale. Her current focus is translating the Italian memoir of beloved friend Tosca Barucci Chesi. As a counselor and spiritual director, Sheila has a heart for artists and those in professional ministry. She loves Gerard Manley Hopkins. With her husband she plans to return to Croatia, anticipating more surprises and trusting that the Holy Ghost will continue brooding over the bent world, even and perhaps especially there.
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